Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Work in Progress

 A search this morning through drawers and closet shelves for a particular shirt you had in mind to wear today led you to a conclusion that was lacking originality:  You no doubt have enough shirts to last you through the balance of your life.

You've had this realization before; it does not mean you will buy no new shirts, even though you do not need any, nor does it mean you will some day discover why it is you have so many shirts. 

While you are well known to appreciate insightful explanations, you also understand how explanations are not always enough to overcome the tendency you have to buy shirts. Nor are you likely to visit some form or other of a counsellor or therapist for the purpose of unraveling your tendency.

A recent discussion with your literary agent on the occasion of her telling you a publisher had sent you a royalty check and a request for another book got you to looking at your notes relative to projects you'd like to write. In that search, you found detailed notes for a short story that explains at least two things to you, on being your sudden unfriending or unfollowing as it were of a coffee shop you'd come to enjoy. At this precise moment, you feel the strong urge to set all work aside, then get on with the short story.

This urge to write the story takes you back to age nineteen, when you were faced with a barrage of midterm examinations at UCLA, and a habit you've kept hidden from yourself for lo these many years. The story itself is set at the coffee shop you've been dodging, perhaps your own nature's way of reminding you about the habit or the story.

Instead of studying for midterm exams, the undergraduate you wrote a long, rambling, novella-length short story. Many of your subsequent short stories, incidentally your favorite medium, have been written when you were facing the equivalent of midterm exams.

In similar fashion to such shirts as you now have and may have in the future, you have enough book projects to last you for the rest of your life. This hardly means you will not undertake projects not even on your to-do list, any more than it means you will in fact write all the projects on your to-do list before you expire. 

One of your major tenets about a writer is the inevitability of death coming to him or her with a project still in the works. However frustrating it may be to the writer at the time, death,under such circumstances, can be seen as having led a life of essential happiness. 

Almost beyond belief is the notion that among your final thoughts, one may be the solution to the project you're now working on. But such is the nature of the writer, and the importance to the writer of Process, which is ongoing. This brings you to your major point, which is work.

The most important aspect of the writing is the work, on a daily basis. Number of keepable pages on any given day is irrelevant. Amount of work expended is of critical importance, even if the goal of completion is not met, is, in fact, never met.

A product, often referred to as a work, is the amalgamation of work, talent, luck, and not to forget that great random element, luck. You get an idea, then you work to see if you can bring it to fruition, a fact that leaves a good many wannabes by the side of the road.

If a project turns out well, someone in discussing it will say it was a good idea or even a brilliant premise. But it has to be worked at, pounded, twisted, flattened into shape, then examined for potential flaws.

You have in substance as many ideas as you have shirts. They will remain in your notes until you begin the slow, laborious process of shaping them, working at them. To quantify, then, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest, you place work at ten, the idea or design or notion a scant five.

If these musings don't remind you of The Baghvad-Gita, they should. One of the most memorable lines of The Gita is: "To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof."

Sometimes, finding yourself too concerned with those fruits, you think how desolate you would feel if the work--the ideas--were to disappear. You feel the duty, much of the time, to pursue the work, admittedly taking moments in which you dither and procrastinate, but you've also devised ways to get the work back again and thus the work becomes the fruit.


Monday, February 8, 2016

Somewhere, a Voice Is Calling

On those occasions when you find difficulty beginning you day's venture into investigating the two worlds of Reality and your imagination, you often take yourself to a coffee shop, preferably a busy one. An empty coffee shop will in the long run do you no good. 


True enough, you'll have picked the coffee shop because of your judgment, informing you how luscious the coffee is there, but in equal truth, you have the equipment at home to make a passable cup of coffee. Even though you seek a coffee shop, you go there to set up shop because of another matter altogether.

Your visit to the coffee shop begins with your recognition that you need specific, focused concentration to get you inside the project you're working on, in a sense becoming one with it and its attitudes. You go away from home in search of conversations at nearby tables or, in special occasions, well across the room. 

You want the conversations under ideal circumstances to be between two individuals, one of whom speaks in a high squeak. Gender is not an issue here; you've found as many men as women who speak forth in a high squeak.

The other quality you seek, the second banana to this duo, as it were, is democracy in action. You want a loud, unpleasant voice, made unpleasant as much from self-regard as tonal quality. You wish to hear these two, in full conversation, squeak, groan, me, me, I, I, I. You wish to feel parts of your body, responding to the conversation, wishing to roll up or down as a canvas awning at a store front. You wish to become irritated to the point of nodding your head in recognition of this, this conversation, this irritating conversation, being your reason for being at this coffee shop at this time.

This will seem a leap of logic, but it is not. Some years ago, you began asking beginning students to name as many basic story elements as they could. Plot. Denouement. Reversal. Suspense. Confrontation. And so forth. 

More often than not, the students would become interested, then contribute certain elements. Dialogue. Narrative. Pacing. Interior monologue.None of them would mention the element--quality--you had in mind and which is the reason for these paragraphs. The quality is voice, which i the way a particular composition sounds.

Voice is also the way you sound, the literary equivalent of the spin or English you impart to the cue ball when you send it off on its way to nudge, caress, or bluster its way through a crowd. Voice is a tangible quality, allowing you to distinguish one story from another, and, almost as vital, one character from another.

You were quite explicit about the way those two imaginary voices in the imaginary coffee shop would sound. If they sounded inviting, pleasant, learned, funny, intriguing, then you'd want to join them in their discussion. As you've constructed the element, the voices are irritating to the point where you have to concentrate in order to neutralize them so that you can hear your own voice and attitude.

How easy it becomes, then for you to ask your students to arrange the qualities they can name in a hierarchy, with the most important being on top, the least important at the bottom. The result is an individual literary portrait.

Your own top element is, thus, Voice. Your bottommost element is plot, for almost obvious reasons. Because you are so alert to the sounds of the voices, the effect of one upon the other becomes your way of dealing with plot. You can tell when one voice is being sarcastic or perhaps trying to please. Thus Voice gives you plot. You accept it and run with it, even at a coffee shop.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Writer as Time Traveler and Fixer


In most circumstances, the past is a serious distraction from the present and the future. You can profit from past experiences, using something you've learned back there/then to confront something directly ahead of you or something you're planning on accomplishing, say finishing the composition of a story or a book.

Otherwise, dwelling back there/then takes away from the vision and energy necessary to cope with now, meaning you're still not happy with the results from the past and you've blown some practice time or actual playing time in dealing with the immediate now. 

So far as completing that story or book you mentioned a moment ago, too much time dawdling or dithering in the past will have an impact on the completion date. Too much time spent reviewing the "could have" and "should have" of the past is the equivalent of taking aim at the future, then shooting yourself in the foot.

Another thing to consider, in case you happen to be coming off a good streak of doing well, being happy, and getting the sense of somehow extending your horizons. This is a good sign that you've progressed, matured, ripened, learned. You're on a good forward momentum. Even so, spend some time in the past, looking for where you left something, or wondering if you got all the value out of an experience, and you're going to make a significant discovery.  

Looking back is still not the best idea because you'll see things in terms of the growth and progress you made, then begin to wonder why you were so slow to come around, thinking, you were okay back then, but could have done more. Right. The old guilt spiral.  

You try to save going back into the past as occasions to review something you composed yesterday or the week before or maybe even longer than that. When you do, you hope you won't stay in the past for too long. Rather, you'll be transported somewhere, in the manner of Dorothy Gale being transported to Oz. Some of the people and places might appear familiar to you because, after all, you'll have been transported to a place in your imagination, which is fed by your actual experiences and day dreams. Some of the places will surprise you because of the way they seem so real, so convincing.

Some individuals and places you encounter during this transportation will send you right back to LAX, or wherever it was from which you began, in the most literary and literal manner possible, all because of one potentially wrong word or attribution. 

This much is clear, going back in the past to review what you've done is fraught with the mischief of one or two words too many, one or two sentences not enough, a judgment coming from you instead of one of your characters, perhaps one or more stereotypes you let creep into the language.

Being at this game as long as you have, making contact with others who have, and your own reading have brought you to a point you once thought was cynical but which you now regard instead as manageable. When you go back in time to review, the greater likelihood is that you will get bounced out of your imaginative venue, but the odds are growing better for you to spot the knock-out place, then figure a way to repair it so that the thing that survives all this time travel is the product of your imagination.

The hidden joy and great temptation for dwelling in the past is the awareness of how, being at this as long as you have, you'll not only find places where you screwed up but good information about how to avoid future screw-ups.

This is, of course, the existential elephant in the living room. You come away confident, then you write something or do something or, with deliberation, do not do something you consider significant. Then, no sooner than you get back in time to deconstruct it or, as they say in the worlds of John LeCarre, be debriefed, than you realize you've got to go back and fix it.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Closing in on a Profession

Even when you are composing something taking place in the immediate now, you are still, to a significant degree, writing about something that happened in the past, perhaps in the distant past, but now catching up with you.


Standing in the library, before the librarian, looking at the book she has a moment earlier, handed you, saying, "Here then, try this," you were not looking for a glimpse of the future as it pertained to you, had no idea you would, a few years later, be at a university with a declared major, a fair-to-middlin English Department. Because you'd not read nearly enough to suit yourself in the first place, you were in the library, asking the librarian pointed questions about your growing disillusion with the way so-called boys' adventure stories were panning out.

You had no idea your favorite writer would have issues with the author of the book the librarian was extending to you, but you did have an idea how many adults had a short patience when it came to offering things to teenagers. 

You were definitely in your teens and wanted out. You were in middle school and wanted out. You were bordering on boredom with the kinds of adventure books that offered some transportation away from the kinds of boredom you were experiencing.

"Here, take this. From what you tell me, this should help." This, from the librarian, reminded you what the ER doctor said after you were taken there, having speared your foot with a pitchfork during agriculture class, "This," the doctor said, administering an anti-tetanus shot, "will last you for some time and keep you from frothing at the mouth."

A week later, one of the better things that happened to you while you were in middle school, happened; a teacher you quite liked saw the book given you by the librarian. She wanted to know if you'd read it yet." You liked her enough to be honest. "No," you said. "It's English and it's history." "Guy like you," the teacher said, "who gets all those N's (for needs to improve) on his report card shouldn't have any trouble with this. Next Monday, you'll do a book report on it. Okay?" 

Because you liked her, you said okay. You were now obligated to read the book, which begins with a bunch of Norman knights, back in England after the crusades, asking for and being granted the hospitality of Sir Cedric, a Saxon, with ties back to the old Saxon kings of England.

There is mischief afoot when we learn that nearby, a moneylender, Isaac of York, has taken lodgings. One of the Norman knights has a plan to capture Isaac and hold him for ransom. All that going on in a few pages. You were aware of some of the dynamics, and given the title of the novel, you began to suspect that the unnamed pilgrim who guides the Norman knights to Sir Cedric's estate, might well be the son Sir Cedric has disinherited because of his devoted following of Richard II, a Norman.  Oh, boy, fourteen-year-old you is off and running.

By the time you have finished your first reading of Ivanhoe, you have met one of the characters who will become a rival for your favorite literary villain, you'll have begun to get a notion of English history, and in a way as yet too subtle for you to unravel for another few years, find your own voice for humor.

As you note when you give your review, this novel is filled with layers of interest, all of which impact directly on the outcome. The one thing that bugs you is that the protagonist, Sir Wilfrid, goes riding off into the sunset with Rowena, his father's ward, and also a descendant of the Saxons.  You wanted him to do something you'd later think lay in the narrative drive of Jane Austen. You wanted him to connect with Rebecca, the daughter of Isaac of York. What a lovely match that would have been.

All the time you were absorbing and being transported by Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, the notion of trying your hand at journalism, with the occasional dip into a novel or short story, was beginning to chase you down the halls and, more important, into the libraries. This is not saying Ivanhoe was a direct influence, but it did, even back then, take you to another level of reading, where there were significant levels of plot and theme to keep track of.

When you returned Ivanhoe to the library, the librarian asked you what you thought. Your book review of it fresh in your mind, you spoke at some length.  "I'm wondering," the librarian said.
"Well," she said.  "Well," you said.  She left you for a few moments, her soft heel clicks suggesting she'd traveled to the fiction section.

"Here," she said. "Maybe a good fit for you. We'll see."


Friday, February 5, 2016

When a Beginning Is Like Boarding the Wrong Train

Get used to beginnings and their implications. If you don't, you'll find yourself in the ever widening gyre of repetition, of the ordinary, the uneventful, with nothing to pique your curiosity or keep you from that soggy state of settled-in routine.  Green Jello on weekdays, red Jello on weekends and holidays.

 
There is much similarity between beginning a new project and getting on a train service in a major population center, say Boston, or New York, or the Metro in Washington, D.C.  You get on with a destination in mind, perhaps even an expectation of meeting a particular person or attending a particular event. You don't have a complete picture of the outcome any more than you have a vivid picture of how the story or novel will end.

Boarding or starting has the side effect of collateral enthusiasm.  Here you are, in New York or Boston, heading for a meeting. Here you are, starting a story that has come to you from a combination of random effects, leaving you enthused, dazzled, a bit stunned by the audacity you see attached to the story.  If this story goes the way it now seems to be going, it could be for you the equivalent of Catch-22 for Joseph Heller, or My Antonia for Willa Cather.

You may see an acquaintance in the train station.  "Hey, man, where you off to?" And depending where you are, you throw out an address, "666 Fifth Avenue," or "Catching the afternoon game at Yankee Stadium."  

If it's not the train you're taking but instead a project, some writer friend might ask, "What you working on?" And you might, in you enthusiasm for the project, say something you're bound to regret, such as "My equivalent of Catch-22," by which it is understood you are not comparing yourself to Joe Heller so much as you are bragging on your  project in a true enthusiasm for the work.

You board the train or you start the new project in a near trance state of anticipation and self-awareness beyond the ordinary, the clack of the wheels on the tracks or the sound of your fingers moving with authority over the keyboard adding a sense of adventure to the enterprise. But something begins to nag at you.  The things you see along the way are not the same things you saw when you were last on, say, the D train to Yankee Stadium or the famed Boston Red Line to South Station.

The voice and emphasis that seemed so perfect for the new project has turned to a mushy sounding narrative.  You feel as though you've just spilled coffee all over yourself as a result of some sweeping gesture of enthusiasm.  The reason becomes clear.  In your enthusiasm, you boarded the wrong train, began the wrong story, are even as you realize the problem, accelerating away from your entry point, borne along with a growing sense of helplessness.

For some time, you feel helpless, embarrassed, vulnerable, desperate not to be recognized. But there is, after a while, something familiar about this. You've felt these same feelings of disorientation and vulnerability before, crouched in your own shadow until you began to recognize the sight of your body and extended limbs.

If the beginning is a true beginning, the symptoms are quite legitimate; you are disoriented and vulnerable. Born and with a brief recess, raised in Los Angeles, at one time, you knew all the bus routes, knew how to get from where you lived in west central LA to the extreme southeast border of Los Angeles County, the port of Long Beach, for thirty-five cents. You knew the best places and worst places to hitch a ride, and when you got your own car, knew where to get eight gallons of gasoline for a dollar.

Good luck with any of that now; LA has trains, tunnels, and metro that would bewilder you even though you know the street names and neighborhoods. What once was has relevance now only should you chose to write an historical account. You know aspects of your last stories and your last novel, but were you to set forth on a new one, you'd have that same sinking whirl of doubt you've had with each successive beginning that was not a remake of the previous one.

Compared to many of your friends, you're only a so-so traveler.  Nevertheless, setting out on a new trip means a completely different set of expectations based not only on past experience and present-day information but on your financial, emotional, and professional status. You have to ask yourself:  If you don't feel lost at least once, whether starting a new story or driving to visit your eldest niece and her husband in Santa Fe, you haven't really begun; you're still playing off the last story or the last visit.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Happy Endings Don't Necessarily Fit

This has happened to you any number of times,often with novels and essays but more often with the short story:  You'll find yourself close to what seems like the ending, where a character has undergone the stress and pressures sufficient to produce an aha moment or, if the work is an essay, where some understanding of the situation feels about to make itself known to you.


Such moments, in their way, are as exciting as the momentum that gets you off and running on a project, almost drunk on the awareness of how you'll be living with this exciting arrangement of ideas and conflicts and personality for weeks, perhaps even months, as you hurriedly erect some kind of platform on which you can stand, of course to see beyond your ordinary horizon, but to that place where the universe seems about to whisper a secret in your ear.  

This secret has nothing whatsoever to do with material wealth or even some brilliant vision of shapes and outcomes no one has seen before. Instead, the secret promises you a sense of a vision of the universe as being a part of some greater order. 

The vision will not last long, but being able to see it long enough to fit it into sentences and dramatic action seems about as much as a person can hope to discover in one lifetime.  Perhaps this is better expressed with the vision lifting you, as your father did on memorable occasions, in order to see over the crowd of adults, watching some event.

You're most entranced by the times you've written what you thought were final arguments or ending scenes, only to discover that they left something undone and unsaid. You recall moving out into the world to engage some simple thing, say shopping for groceries, or getting your car detailed, or even getting your hair cut, activities undertaken with the near superstitious belief of outcome where your return to the project will present the vision you seek and, of course, the ending.

More wads of paper as notes, once thought to contain the keys to understanding, lose their luster before your eyes. After a time of this intensity, you resort to your least favorite tactic, stepping away from the project.  Perhaps you read or begin something else or go fishing or take a series of aimless-but-intense walks, assuring and reassuring yourself how this behavior will bring you to the point where you and the resolution become one, which is to say you have a complete vision of the project. This vision is always linked to irony because, more often than not, the work is finished, except that you're the last one to realize it.

No wonder things wouldn't fit.  No wonder your search for a place from which to extend that observation platform from which you have a clear vision of the entire project has been so frustrating. Major parts of you knew the project was finished, but in deference to the minor parts, many of which have brought you valuable insight, you continue to fret, try to tack on endings or conclusions that won't fit.

From a practical nature, this is assurance that you know how to write beginnings and middles. If you approach endings with the curious admixture of humility and confidence, you should be able to approach the ending as though it were a carefully arranged display of game birds, fruit, dishes, and vases often seen in the more memorable still lives so common among representational painters.

Endings don't always elude you with such irony, but when they do come with seeming ease, you can't help wondering, when everything else requires so much attention, the ending simply presents itself. Here I am, thank you.  When acceptable endings do come with such apparent ease, you can be sure that there are termites or loose flooring in the opening section, which may be more rhetorical than properly dramatic. Easy endings can be advance warming of flabby middles.

The best thing to do for those circumstances is to remove the offending segment, then start from scratch, hopeful of linking with the original impulse for the work. In most of the math of which you are aware, the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. You spend much of your time wandering about in worlds where this vision is essentially true.

The great likelihood is that the arrival of the vision that prompts the story has nothing at all to do with the sum equaling the totality of its parts. This is story we're talking about here, not an even, perfect world. This is the world of quirky phenomena, pesky, impatient individuals, wildly impractical agendas, and the possibility of desperation in the eagerness of the characters to encounter them.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Once upon a [ fill in the blank]

More than once, many times more, in fact, one of your parents told you, "The time will come when you'll see for yourself why this [fill in the blank] isn't a good idea," and shortly thereafter, the other of your parents [fill in the blank] would tell you, "Listen to your [mother/father] because {he/she] will prove out to be correct."


At least once, the person you thought would become your mother-in-law told you, "This isn't the right time for you two."

You've lost count of the number of situations in which you were told by a wide variety of individuals, "There will come a time when you will see the wisdom behind what I'm telling you." Nor can you recall the number of circumstances where you were told you were too early, too late, out of time, had come at the wrong time, your timing was off, that this [fill in the blank} was not a good time, or the even more peremptory, "Not now. Maybe some other time."

Time is a unit of drama in which certain events began or, in appropriate fashion, failed to begin. Each incident has its own length, reminding you that so long as a sentence has a subject and predicate, perhaps the occasional adjective, it can be of any length and, in your case, often is.

Time is also a unit of measurement in which you decide you don't have time for {fill in the blank] this. or the length of interval needed for someone to finally tell you what they think of you or of something you've done or not done.

In the best sense, time is highly volatile, even more highly composed of subjective subparticles which somehow combine to make a whole that encourages, exacerbates, frustrates, ratifies, validates you. You've never truly calculated how long you've needed to get from Point A to Point B if there had been no imperative for you to quit dithering and get your ass over to Point B. You're only aware of such things as lateness or missed connections until you've waited for someone to show something, even if the thing the person showed you was up or appearance.

Sometimes, you find yourself wondering about the possible duration of a relationship or the length of a story or the amount of time between this immediate moment and the time you can with plausible reason expect to be paid for work you have performed or for an item you have offered for rent or sale.

Time is how long you will need to produce the remaining paragraphs of a short story or the final chapter of a book. The fact of the short story being of fewer words does not in any way mean you will need less time to produce those paragraphs as opposed to the amount necessary to complete the book.  In either case, the outcome is at best mischievous, possibly even manipulative.

The least important aspects of time are the number of seconds in a minute, the number of minutes in an hour, the number of hours in a day, the number of days in a regular year or a leap year. These measurements, while of significance, can also be tossed in the dust heap of overuse, the length of time someone judged you by when she or he felt you were dithering or somehow withholding necessary action.

There may be no time like the present but there are times which, for the best of reasons, you'd like to forget, to keep as out of the metric as possible, simply because you've come to have a different understanding of those and similar behavior patterns of which, at present, you are far from proud.

However difficult the prospects of getting an measure of any given length of time, we know from ancient cliche that it and tide wait for no man, although they thus far have obeyed the priorities of  Nature with regard to the wax and wane of tide. In your own experiences with it, you understand your ability to set yourself as an alarm clock, waking up within moments of s specified time, say six thirty of a morning. 

You also know that if you happen to fall awake at four with your inner alarm set for six, those two hours before six will elapse with a leaden pace, but if you should happen to regain sleep at, say four thirty, staying asleep until five forty five, you'd better get up then.  The closer you come to six, the greater the speed of elapsed time.

This may well have been what Einstein meant when he spoke of relativity. You do know that your computation or expectation relative to time is idiosyncratic, seeking ways to work against you, in a sense much as water seeks its own level and will thus rise to the level of some far away, unanticipated reference point.

So far, you don't feel competitive with time; you left home on grant terms, even scoring in the process a sofa your aunt had intended for your mother, and so far as you're aware, is telling for you in a most agreeable way.